ART ROSENBAUM’S OLD-TIME BANJO BOOK
BY ART ROSENBAUM
Mel Bay MB30494DP.
(Mel Bay, 4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO 63069, www.melbay.com.)
This is an exciting new book and DVD from one of the modern masters of old-time banjo. Rosenbaum is retired from the University of Georgia after a long career as an art professor. He’s widely known for capturing folkways through his art and extensive field recordings and won a Grammy for his collection, Art Of Field Recording. His first book was Old-Time Banjo in the late sixties. At that time, he also recorded an LP with Al Murphy that is highly prized by collectors of old-time music. Like the late Mike Seeger, he has dug into the various styles, learning from the many old-timers he met while collecting songs, ballads, and tunes. This leads to a diverse approach incorporating two- and three-finger styles as well as the overhand-style called clawhammer, frailing, framing, etc.
This book represents the deepest look yet into Rosenbaum’s extensive repertory. His sources range from North Georgia to Kentucky and on to Iowa and Indiana and beyond. He not only learned tunes from these older players, he came to know them and understand a bit of their lives. This book imparts a small part of this collected knowledge. It’s the backup resource to the two DVDs included. There are extensive notes on the tunes and his approach to playing, including advice as to what’s important and what isn’t. This set covers a wide range of right-hand styles and over forty different tunings used by these sources. He uses a number method to achieve each new tuning from a more basic tuning. This wide range serves many purposes. First, they set the atmosphere for the tune (as the late Wade Ward stated so eloquently). Second, they allow the player to maximize more open strings and get special affects that a more standard tuning wouldn’t accommodate. The riches of traditional banjo bring a whole new layer of experience to the music while reflecting the ingenuity of the older generation in capturing the essence of the sound they heard in their heads. Consider that, in a time when there was less wealth in options, one might dig deeper with what they had to add richness to their experiences.
Rosenbaum walks through a progression of tunings from the more familiar to the very arcane, unlocking the wonders found in the old-time banjo. The two DVDs cover all of the tunes in the book and more. The idea is to learn as much as you can by watching and listening. This is the folkway of learning, the way the old-timers did it. Banjo instruction books are a fairly recent phenomenon in the grand scheme. Rosenbaum is quick to tell the viewer and the reader that the tabs are there just for reference. If something doesn’t quite make sense, then use the book. Otherwise, try to catch the tune from the video, as it was done for generations.
This project was a family affair. Art’s wife Margo’s photographs are featured throughout the book—rare glimpses into lives we know very little about. DeAnna Rosenbaum did the cover design while son Neil did the video recording. All of this makes for a first-rate package. If you’re interested in old-time banjo and are a serious student of the instrument, this package is essential. Take it from someone who’s played banjo for nearly five decades, there is something here that you don’t know.RCB